Mr Lyons was on his way out to buy the paper, at precisely 9.05 am, just like any other day, when he saw it. Someone had stubbed out a cigarette right on his doorstep. It hadn’t blown in, it was there with shreds of tobacco squashed out of it. Mr Lyons knew every inch of his front garden, every pebble, every crack in the mortar between slabs, every tiny weed that had the temerity to poke its head out. He was very sure there hadn’t been a cigarette butt there when he took in the mat the night before.
“Good morning,” he said to the postman, who was just heaving round the gate with some letters for him.
“Do you want them in your hand?”
“No, I’m going out. You don’t smoke do you?”
“No, I try not to.”
“Somebody has been smoking on my doorstep. Look.”
“Oh yes. Delivery?”
That’s when it came back to him. He thought he had smelled cigarette smoke last night, when he went to bed. He always slept with the window open and his bedroom was at the front of the house. He made a mental note to sweep the step when he got back from the newsagent’s.
Mr Lyons made a living repairing sewing machines from home. His routine was unchanging, up at 7:30, wash and dress, breakfast and Radio 4, then out to the newsagents to pick up the Observer to read at lunchtime. When he got back he would work through to nearly one o’clock and seldom think about anything but sewing machines. But today he was distracted, couldn’t concentrate. The stubbed-out cigarette was bothering him.
Who would do that? Why were they at his door? There had been no note. Ah, perhaps it was a mistake and whoever it was realised they had the wrong house. They were just so rude and thoughtless to put out a cigarette on his doorstep. It would have been bad enough if they had done it on the path but the step: it was aggressive. That was it. Maybe the smoker had in mind to do him some harm.
Living alone, Mr Lyons occasionally felt a bit vulnerable. He wasn’t all that old and he swam twice a week. He kept a lumpy great cudgel of a stick in the corner of a wardrobe and that was what he planned to defend himself with if it came to that. Of course it was useless against a gun but short of that, he reckoned he could hold his own in a fight. After lunch he went upstairs and took the cudgel out and lay it beside his bed.
He managed to put it all out of his mind, or rather his mind grew tired and bored with the puzzle and he completed servicing and reassembling a classic old machine. The anxiety he felt earlier had abated and he was fairly sure it must have been someone who had to approach to read the door number in the dark. Someone rude, and anti-social but nevertheless, not worth fretting over.
My Lyons bought himself fish and chips for dinner, though it always made him ill. He wanted cheering up. He had it with tea with Scotch in it and watched The One Show and Eastenders and the latest drama serial. After the ten o’clock news, he prepared to go to bed. This time he had an extra task, to check the doorstep for cigarette butts. He had swept it earlier and it was still clean. So he locked up and retired to try to read another bit of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. He had tried every night for several years but was still on the first chapter. At precisely 11 pm, he gave up trying to make his eyes focus, turned out the bedside lamp and rolled onto his side.
In front of him the curtains made artistic lines in monochrome, lit by the streetlight outside next door. He usually thought the same thought about painting the scene and all night scenes, shortly before his thoughts started to drift. But there it was again. The smell of cigarette smoke. Just like last night. He put his hand on the cudgel beside the bed and grasped it, then not without a degree of fear, eased himself up, trying not to make a sound. The blasted cudgel fell with a clank.
He had been planning to peep out the curtains, and told himself he still had to, but with the noise, someone might look up. Why was it worse if they looked up and saw him peeping? Never mind, it just was so much, much worse. To be seen. Seen to be afraid. But man up, he thought to himself. Mr Lyons, are you a man or a mouse? And to himself he answered, a mouse. But the mouse that he was still peeped out through the curtains.
Nothing. There was nobody there. He pulled the curtains open more and peered up and down the street in case someone had scarpered, ludicrous as it would seem. Nothing. Just the ghostly monochrome scene of empty cars parked under streetlamps. A car came by and turned at the next junction.
My Lyons didn’t sleep well after that. He dreamt he was in an exam but couldn’t even answer one question, so he left early but then got lost in a maze of empty corridors. A door led to a dark street and someone he couldn’t see in a doorway raised a lighted cigarette to his face. Only it wasn’t Harry Lime. He woke. He couldn’t remember who it was he’d seen.
In the morning there was no cigarette butt on the doorstep. He raised his eyebrows a little and turned to go back in. That’s when he noticed there was a spent match stuck in the letterbox.
Steve Moran lives in London, just about. He has published short stories and poems, and tried his hand a bit of light editing. He is married and has reproduced once. So he claims anyway, and you can fact-check this news at www.sjmoran.com.